May 29, 2007 9:45 PM
Standards for letters vs. web postings
A reader raised a thoughtful question about why we have different standards for letters to the editor and web comments, some of which are printed in the paper.
"Subject: Standards for printing reader comments
"I am writing about what I perceive as a double standard in your policy of publishing reader comments.
"As stated daily in every newspaper, letters eligible for print must include
the writer's full name, address and daytime phone number. However, other
parts of the newspaper now print comments attributed to anonymous internet
usernames - no real names or locations. Sometimes these web excerpts even
appear on the same page as traditional letters.
"Why are there two different set of rules for printing public comments? Why
are message board posters given so much more privacy, compared to those who write directly to the editorial staff?
"I presume - for traditional letters - the address and phone number are used
to verify the identity of the writer prior to publication. There are also
numerous databases available to confirm the combination of an individual's name, address and phone number, to verify the existence of the writer.
"To register on most message boards (including the one run by the Rocky
Mountain News), one only needs to provide a working e-mail address. All
other details can be fabricated as needed. How exactly do your forum
administrators verify the name and address information associated with each username?
"I am withholding my street address and phone number from this letter to
prevent its publication. Although a personal response via e-mail would be
welcome, I prefer to read in a future edition the official response of the Rocky Mountain News on the subject of writer and poster identification."
The reader raises an important topic, one we've discussed a lot internally.
First, there's no need to withhold the the address or phone number in a letter to prevent its publication. I receive many such requests. We honor them.
But to the question, why a different standard. The answer is because the Web has opened a whole new avenue for readers to participate in the news in real time and we want to encourage that participation. Comments are a very popular feature.By publishing excerpts from the Web conversation in the paper, we're hoping to encourage readers to become involved online and to capture the tone of discussion, to give people a feel for what people are saying.
What we've done is set different standards for the kinds of comments we'll print from the Web and what we'll print on the letters page. We give letter writers far more leeway because they're putting their name to their work. We see the publishing of Web comments in the paper as a way to capture the conversation that's going on over a particular issue. So it's OK to publish an opinion on a public policy issue, but not to take from the Web comments that include personal accusations or controversial factual assertions. The rules for Web comments are much narrower than the rules for letters.
I hope this helps.
By the way, one of the strengths of the Web is that it's self-policing. I think that can apply to the paper, too. If people think we're publishing inappropriate comments from the Web, I hope they'll let me know.